President addresses the Dóchas 50th Anniversary Conference

Thu 9th May, 2024 | 13:00
location: Royal College of Physicians, Kildare Street, Dublin 2

Speech by President Higgins at the Dóchas 50th Anniversary Conference

Royal College of Physicians, Dublin, Thursday, 9 May 2024

A cháirde,

I dtús báire is mian liom a rá go bhfuil áthas orm bheith páirteach libh i gceiliúradh 50 bliain do Dhóchas.

(May I begin by saying how delighted I am to be with you all today as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dóchas.)

May I thank Jane Ann McKenna for the kind invitation to deliver this address, and all of those involved in Dóchas for making today’s event possible.

May I also extend my warm regards to Professor Attiya Waris, UN Independent Expert on Foreign Debt, Other International Financial Obligations and Human Rights. Professor Waris has undertaken such important work on debt restructuring, tax justice firmly grounded in human rights, systemic reform, and effective measures to address illicit financial flows, which have been a central obstacle to the prospects for the progressive realisation of human rights.

What is understandable controllable, accountable, emancipatory?  For the past five decades, Dóchas has served as a vital voice of hope and solidarity, bringing together various non-governmental groups and perspectives within the international development area under a single shared network to share experience, advocate for human rights, gender equality, and social justice around the world. I have had the benefit of this, not least through Hans Zomer bringing that experience to work for me.

In 2024 we now find ourselves at a grave position.  The rhetoric of war is everywhere, including, in its consequences a major distraction from the discourse on international  co-operation on issues we share – global hunger, migration, dispossession.

Dóchas understood from its very beginnings the importance and the power of collaboration, of the sharing of ideas and the merging of consciousness. In doing so, it has enabled international development and humanitarian organisations in Ireland to achieve greater impact by working together under a single voice, and also, I suggest, of protecting their mandates.

Now that shared voice must be heard ever more strongly, as with acceptance from too many institutions, broken and immorally quiet governments, the military industrial complex defines and destroys our lives – generating the highest profits for its investors since General Eisenhower all those years ago warned of its threat to democratic systems.

In their report ‘Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2023’, published last month, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) highlighted that world military expenditure increased for the ninth consecutive year in 2023, to a figure of $2443 billion. This represents an annual increase of 6.8%, the steepest year-on-year increase since 2009 and the highest level SIPRI has ever recorded. 

It may be a somewhat rare source for me - it was General Eisenhower who, speaking in April 1953, said:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” … “The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.” … “We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.” … “This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

The shared commitment to principles of social responsibility and justice is what might sustain us through challenging periods. 

However, the discourse space is now governed by the politics of fear, where now stands the rhetorical commitment of so many states to responding to climate change, cohesion, and sustainability. The appalling reality is that those great human commitments, singular achievements, struggle for space in a social media where previous norms of context and responsibility do not apply.  

In 2024, we are living in times that cast a dark shadow across the world. We know, are aware that ours is an era marked by our multiple interacting crises – the spectre of preventable hunger on the increase, the scourge of war, rising inequality, declining cohesion, or the perilous consequences of climate change and biodiversity loss.  Where, however, is the evidence for institutional change, political courage, social rage and confrontation with illegal lobbying, abuse of influence. 

Bogus myths of defending the West are relying on ancient, false sources of hate and conflict.  The spokespersons for military alliances interchange with elected representatives and their administrators.

As global citizens, each of us has a responsibility to respond to and to tackle these crises of accountability and democracy not merely with new ideas as is often suggested, but with alternatives to failed policies and practices, and to do so with sustained effort, energy and innovation. 

To ignore these crises, to avert our gaze, as much of mainstream politics is doing, is a dereliction of our duty of care to our shared planet and its life-forms, including our fellow humans and future generations.

In this context, the work of Dóchas and its member organizations has never been more pressing, more vital than ever.  I salute all that over 5 decades has done but I ask for support for it now in what are necessary confrontations with vastly resourced overt, and more often covert, agents of unaccountable destructive capitalism.  

The sobering truth is that our planet is in crisis, the scientific evidence clear and unequivocal – Planet Earth is burning, a result of human economic actions, taken most often by those who wield an unaccountable power in our economies and societies, and with the consequences falling most acutely on the most vulnerable, who are least responsible for climate change.

The recoil to war is little less than a great species failure.

The consequences of a flawed interconnection between ecology, economy, and society are evident to everyone. Disturbing climate shifts are exerting immense pressure on communities worldwide, where ecosystems are no longer capable of sustaining populations, resulting in a depletion of resources necessary for human well-being and progress. 

Most recent reports tell us of the despair of scientists and experts as we crash through a warming limit of 1.5°C towards 2.5°C.  Our most senior scientists work at the betrayal of what were global commitments for the future of humanity.  

I am pleased that your conference theme this year is “climate change adaptation and anticipatory action”. Adapting to our changing climate will be vital to ensure food security.  We know that as one of its consequences climate change is already disrupting food availability, reducing access to food, and impacting food quality. 

Rising temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns, and increasing frequency of extreme weather events pose significant threats to agricultural productivity, livelihoods and, ultimately, food security. For millions of smallholder farmers who depend on rain-fed agriculture for their sustenance, each unpredicted drought or flood can spell disaster, pushing them further into poverty and hunger.

The impacts of climate change are of course not confined to the agricultural sector alone. Such impacts reverberate across entire ecosystems, disrupting food chains, diminishing biodiversity, and exacerbating existing socio-economic inequalities. Vulnerable populations, including women, children, and indigenous communities, bear a disproportionate burden of these impacts, and the responses to them, facing heightened risks of malnutrition, displacement, and food insecurity.

The legacy being laid by failure to act, for conflict, violence, and involuntary migration and displacement, includes a migration which leads to contested space, are widening. Vulnerable groups face the harshest and most immediate consequences, as their very survival hangs in the balance.

At the heart of the diverse body that is Dóchas lies a profound understanding of the intricate connection between climate change and food security, particularly in the diverse and vibrant continent of Africa, the continent of the young.

With regard to food security, the challenge we face is, above all else, a challenge to humanity itself, in terms of capacity to change, make a choice between forms of the technical and scientific that can serve international conglomerates with clear monopolising features or make a new start that gives agency to smallholders and their communities. It is one that is of paramount importance.

We have to say where we stand on the competing models of food security. Are we in favour of a science driven industrial agriculture without conditions or are we willing to insist on small farmer agency, diversity of crops, privileging the priority for meeting local need with essential nutritious human food systems?

We must face up to the stark facts that illustrate the dysfunctionality of our current food systems. 

Half of the world’s over 8 billion population are defined as malnourished, 2 billion people are experiencing under-nutrition, over 2.5 billion people consume low-quality diets or too much food, while 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet.

In Africa alone, 26.2 percent of Africa’s population experienced severe food insecurity in 2021, with 9.8 percent of the total global population suffering from undernourishment the same year.

Our agri-food systems are broken, not fit for purpose. The existing systems are causing our planet harm, leading to food dependency, food insecurity and hunger.

Of all those connected to the land in one way or another, 71% own 1% of the land. A new race for land, financed by large corporations is under way in Africa.

We have not addressed the basic structural issues that influence food insecurity. Perhaps most critically of all, we must address the root causes of food insecurity, which are often rooted in inequality, injustice, and an exploitation that had its sources in assumptions rooted in colonial-imposed policy.

For example, how did so many in Africa become so dependent on so few staples, the production, distribution and consumption of which they have so little control? How did the complex dependencies of global value chains develop and in whose interests are they being sustained?  How much of a legacy of colonisation and dispossession, abuse of military strength is reflected in existing patterns?

Our very multilateral institutions are under siege from the lobbyists of such interests.

It is a remarkable statistic that, despite having two-thirds of remaining arable land, Africa still imports 100 million tonnes of food at a cost of $75 billion annually. Yet African nations, along with many others facing food security challenges, have the potential to be self-sufficient in terms of food production and to make an ecologically sound contribution to feeding the world.

It is time for us all to take stock of how words are not leading to actions, and why if we are to increase the urgency of our response to what is a grave existential threat and to achieve change. In recent addresses at the second Dakar Summit in Senegal and the World Food Forum in Rome, I emphasized the importance of ensuring access to nutritious and sustainable food for all, the importance of delivering successful food systems, the importance of recognising the links between food insecurity, global poverty, debt and climate change.

In responding to the destruction to our very prospects for survival and all of our peoples, we must now turn a corner, moving past reactive emergency responses to tackling what are the consequences of the underlying structural causes of hunger that we are not addressing. 

Indeed, we cannot hope to achieve food security without tackling the inequalities that underpin our global food system. We must confront issues such as land grabbing, corporate monopolies, and unfair trade practices, which perpetuate poverty and insecurity. This requires courage and solidarity.

We must retreat from the dysfunctional food systems model with urgency and embrace models of sufficiency and effective local markets, care for the surplus before and after market. 

We must ensure that our food production models promote greater autonomies, are informed by local wisdoms, respect the seed sovereignty of native practices and indigenous peoples, taking cognisance of the consequences of large-scale land and water resource ownership and soil fertility maps. 

We must amplify the voices of those most affected by the impacts of climate change, stand with them ensuring that their perspectives, knowledge, and aspirations are central to our collective efforts.

Regionally led initiatives, devised, managed and implemented by the people of the indigenous regions, and supported by predictable and sustainable funding, are key to addressing long-term peace, justice and sustainable living. 

It is easy to show how we need best ecological practices in agriculture, including agro-ecology, to become widespread models that can promote food security and development opportunities for the poorest people on our fragile planet. It is far more difficult to set a space for action in the discourse for such aspects. This is substantially different from mere adjustments to the productionist agronomy model, a colonially imposed food system, which has exacerbated food insecurity by creating over-dependence on a small number of staples and an over-reliance on imported fertiliser, pesticide and seeds. 

Adaptation and responding to the already changing climate is crucial for all of us, and especially in the most food-insecure nations. We must restore degraded ecosystems, introduce drought-resistant crops, within the agency of farmers, and ensure accessible digital services for smallholder farms, while creating new, sustainable green jobs for young people so that we may forge a smart, sustainable, climate-resilient development path for the most vulnerable members of our global family.

All of this requires a politics of the many, a break with radical individualism. I wish I could be confident it will happen. If the signs are rather negative we must escalate all the more.

We must be far more radical in demanding a space for the discourse that is needed if we are to achieve the necessary transformation in policy and practice.

Ours must be a values-led approach to politics and food security, yet empirically sound, so that the primary public goods of life may be shared equitably. This is not just necessary to addressing rising global hunger, it is fundamental to democracy, fundamental to our role as global citizens.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations has, with explicit language, told us that the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals is moving away from us. We are failing.   The rhetoric of war has quenched discussion.

We have had so many broken promises. Only 15 percent of some 140 specific targets to achieve the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals are on track to be achieved. Many targets are going in the wrong direction at the present rate, and not a single one is expected to be achieved in the next seven years.

We must redouble our efforts and with the greatest urgency. We must channel our collective will and determination towards sustainable solutions. It is time for a paradigm shift, a change in consciousness that prioritizes the well-being of our planet over short-term gains.

The challenges ahead are daunting, but they are not insurmountable. Indeed, we have some reasons to be hopeful. When I look around this room today, I see so many engaged and committed people, people who have the enthusiasm, energy and creativity needed to tackle, with vigour and sustained effort, the challenges that we face. There is hope, for we possess the power to make a difference. 

Each one of us, regardless of our individual roles, communities, or professions, must take ownership of the commitment to tackle the challenges facing our shared, precious planet.

As citizens, we possess a moral duty to contribute to a profound societal transformation, one that invokes our shared humanity to re-establish a harmonious relationship between ecology, ethics, economy, culture, and a lived experience of fulfilment and resonance with each other and the world.

Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, may I take this opportunity to commend the work of Dóchas and its member organisations for its 50 years in advocating for policy changes, mobilizing resources, and empowering communities to take control of their own food systems, so many exceptional organisations that have been at the forefront of such good efforts to address the root causes of poverty and injustice, in so many areas across the world, enabling people to live their lives with dignity.  

May I express my sincere gratitude to all those whose tireless dedication, unwavering commitment, and boundless optimism have contributed to the success of Dóchas over the past half century.

Mo bhuíochas libh. Traoslaím libh.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.